On a sunny day in Edinburgh’s New Town, I step off a grand Georgian street to find myself in a village-like world of cottages and flowerpots. Here, in an old engravers’ workshop, lies Callum Innes’s studio.
The painter, relaxed and business-like, welcomes me into the three-floor building. He hobbles his way up the stairs, having broken a bone in his foot while playing football on the beach. For someone so internationally established, I tell him, he is surprisingly young. The 44-year-old laughs. ‘I don’t think I’m that established,’ he says. ‘What is established?’
Established is preparing for a survey show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, complete with a substantial monograph, while simultaneously producing works for major solo shows in New York and Switzerland. At this stage, the Edinburgh-born artist is unable to tell me exactly how many canvases surround us, stacked against each other like dominoes in various perilous states of wetness.
As Innes and I sit chatting in the white afternoon light, photographer Luke Watson picks his way carefully through the maze of canvases, looking for good photographic opportunities. At one point, Innes freezes mid-sentence. Blood drains from his face as he watches Watson glide inches away from the turpentine-soaked surfaces. ‘There’s a very wet painting there,’ he explains quietly, after Luke has moved on.
The studio space is an obstacle course for the uninitiated. Even once the artist has closed up the long hatches in the centre of the two upper floors—where paintings (and sometimes the painter’s mischievous son) are passed from one storey to the next—scores of canvasses lurk at every turn, vulnerable to the slightest ill-judged manoeuvre.
Innes’s paintings are a product of many layers; colour painted on and washed off many times over. Best-known for his ‘exposed paintings’, he creates a history on the canvas which bears traces of time, movement and loss. His studio is full of virgin paintings, their immaculate colour fields like classic minimalist works. For now, they are allowed to dry, but when they are ready, Innes will rob them of their simplicity.
Despite the expanse of the studio, there is only one spot where the artist actually does his painting. ‘You’re seeing the wall clean,’ he explains, ‘because I had clients here a couple of days ago.’ Innes reaches down by my feet and curls up the corner of a large paint spattered mat. ‘That was a painting at one point!’ he grins. ‘We use these to protect the wall so my assistant doesn’t have to paint it every five minutes.’
Because it would take a forensic scientist to work out exactly how Innes makes his paintings, the process has provoked plenty of speculation. ‘There’s no tilting at all, no spinning, turning, nothing,’ he is quick to point out. ‘That’s just a myth that goes round Edinburgh art school.’
Innes jumps at the opportunity to explain his working method in detail, using a recently finished painting as his example. After the basic layer of colour has dried, he tells us, the whole painting is covered in lamp black.
‘Then with brushes I carefully make a line through it first, because if you just put turpentine on it it’ll just meander, so I’ve actually got a channel to flow it and then I start stripping it off left to right.’
That channel is important to an understanding of Innes’s work. Myths of spinning and turning appeal to those who enjoy the element of chance, and for whom the painter is secondary to the natural processes occurring on the canvas.
That is not what Innes is about; he remains very much in control of the whole process. ‘There’s very little that’s down to chance,’ he confirms. Every stage of his painting is carefully orchestrated—except for one small burst of freedom, where dirty turps is allowed to run unchannelled down the lower band of canvas. So when I ask him what relationship he has with process art, the answer is clear: ‘I don’t have any! When the process becomes everything, you can forget about the painting.’
Once Innes has brushed a layer of turpentine on, that’s just the beginning. ‘I then go in with clean turpentine,’ he explains, ‘again and again and again, and then put the black across it again, and repeat this process about four or five times over two days. And then I put a violet through that painting—exactly the same process again—you see the violet coming out, and then black again on top of it.’
At first sight, it’s hard to tell the difference between all of the artist’s paintings, apart from the obvious colour variations. But to Innes, each one is a challenge to move forward. With the Fruitmarket show and publication to prepare for, he has enjoyed the chance to examine his progress over the past 20 years. ‘What’s been refreshing is how it’s changed and how it’s continued to move on,’ he says.
Though control is a key element in Innes’s work, he returns several times to the notion that it should never be absolute. ‘There is a moment in every painting,’ he says, ‘where an element of chance takes place. As soon as you get to the point where you understand everything about the work, it’s time to disrupt it.
‘And maybe,’ Innes continues, ‘it’s time I should disrupt it again.’
Catriona Black is an animator and art critic for the Sunday Herald